Critics – whether of the film, theatre, art, book (or indeed wine!) sort – are not exactly the most admired profession. For most people they hardly exist but they loom very large in the worlds of artists, authors and actors. A cutting review of a book or play can arouse murderous feelings in creative people. And reviewing can be a powerful weapon for those critics who fancy their own creativity. Just think of Clive James’ waspish pyrotechnics about films – still going strong stylistically if now physically weaker.
I’m now back in Sofia and immediately visit my local (second-hand) English bookshop. I am trying to divest myself of books since I have, in a couple of weeks, to close down the nice old flat I’ve had in the centre of Sofia for the past 16 months. But I can’t resist a bulky collection of film and literary reviews called Nobody’s Perfect from one, Anthony Lane, who has apparently been film critic at the New Yorker since 1993 and also one of the best, at least according to John Banville
Nobody's Perfect shimmers with positively Nabokovian elegance, wit and delicacy of expression; it is hard to recall when one was made to laugh out loud like this and at the same time shiver with aesthetic bliss, unless it was the last time one re-read Lolita.Two examples must suffice, picked at random: Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare "took a rockbound Bavarian fortress with the calmness that comes only to those who have previously stormed Elizabeth Taylor"; Jeanne Moreau seemed "the spirit of Cannes incarnate, with a voice that made you feel you were being seduced by a coffee grinder".
This review of the book is also useful – not least for its link to some fellow film critics of whom the most interesting, for me, seems to be Jonathan Rosenbaum
The processes, of course, involved in creating a book or painting are, of course, so very different from those involved in a film or play. In one case solitary and ascetic – in the other multi-discplinary and commercial. Films attract the most viewers – and paintings the least. So art critics, not surprisingly, are the most inaccessible not least in their jargon –despite the best efforts of writers such as John Updike and, above all, John Berger whose Selected Essays I bought recently from the fantastic Frost English bookshop in Bucharest. The Essays were reviewed at length in LRB but behind a paywall
I still have a subscription so let me share some of the comment -
Berger recognised that photography presented a new challenge to the tradition of painting. Not only was it intrinsically realist: it had largely escaped the reach of the art market. Photographs could be commodified – and were – but, for the most part, they circulated outside the market. They were kept in a drawer or an album rather than displayed.
By now Berger had become acclimatised not only to France but also to the peasant culture of the Alpine village where he had lived since 1974. More and more, the peasantry became his central focus. The continuity of their history and traditions was unbroken, to a degree closed off from the urban culture which increasingly dominated the world, with its project of perpetual change and renewal. England had long ago discarded the last traces of peasant culture: there were farmers, but farming had itself become an industry, fully mechanised and intimately linked to massive food companies. In his 1979 novel, Pig Earth, he took on the role of one of those traditional village storytellers who, in his own words, were an ‘organic part of the life of the village’. The villagers enjoy the tales they are told by ‘the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions’.Not surprisingly, the artists who now occupied his attention included Millet and Van Gogh, painters about whom he had first written in 1956.
Eventually, in 1972, Berger attacked conventional art history head on in Ways of Seeing, a series made for BBC2 in collaboration with Mike Dibb and others, and intended as a riposte to Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. This is a summary of the book
In many ways the BBC series was directly inspired by Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, particularly in its emphasis on photography as the upstart young rival of painting, the product of an industrial, technological and commercial age. Berger made a number of important points in the course of the series.
That seeing is dependent on looking, which is itself an act of choice. That the objects of our looking are not simply things but the relationships that exist between things, and between things and ourselves. That every look establishes a particular relationship between ourselves and the world we inhabit, and that it is at the same time highly personal, reflecting the concerns of the viewer, the bearer of the look.My own feeling is that critics are wrongly disparaged. After all, they bring an incredible knowledge to the table. The pity is that they so often feel it neccessary to use that knowledge (of previous work) as a weapon in a struggle for superiority instead of as a means of instruction........